Mitch McConnell's decision to step down as GOP leader reverberates in Kentucky

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Mitch McConnell's decision to step down as Senate Republican leader in November is reverberating back home in Kentucky, setting off a wave of speculation about the future of his seat as well as the loss of influence for the Bluegrass State.

McConnell was cagey enough in his announcement to leave room for guessing about whether he might seek another term in 2026. Those who know him well are coming down on both sides of that question.

“It rings the bell for the Senate race in 2026,” said Kentucky political commentator Al Cross, a longtime McConnell watcher. “While he hasn’t made any announcement, it’s a foregone conclusion now that he’s not going to run for reelection. He made those repeated references to age and nearing the end of his career. So it’s clear enough.”

State Senate President Robert Stivers was more circumspect, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if the 82-year-old senator seeks another term in 2026.

“I do not believe that this announcement today is any indication of what his future plans may be,” Stivers said Wednesday.

McConnell is Kentucky’s longest-serving senator and won his seventh six-year term in 2020.

He has wielded his influence to put Kentucky near the head of the table when federal funds were passed out to fix roads, build bridges, support universities, improve airports and more. He often said his leadership position enabled Kentucky to “punch above its weight.”

“We will never be represented by someone as powerful as Mitch McConnell in the United States Senate,” said Republican state Sen. Damon Thayer, the Kentucky Senate's majority floor leader.

The state "won't have the influence we've had,” Stivers said. “We lose that.”

McConnell spoke from the Senate floor in somber, valedictory tones, but he left open the possibility that he might seek another term, declaring at one point: “I'm not going anywhere anytime soon.”

“I will finish the job the people of Kentucky hired me to do as well — albeit from a different seat in the chamber," he said. And he didn't commit to leaving that seat.

"I still have enough gas in the tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics," he said, "and I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm to which they have become accustomed.”

Aides said McConnell’s Wednesday announcement was unrelated to his health. However, the senator had a concussion from a fall last year and two public episodes where his face briefly froze while he was speaking.

Those health setbacks, along with his fractured relationship with former President Donald Trump, had already sparked speculation about whether McConnell’s current term could be his last. Trump has steamrolled fellow Republicans in his bid for another term in the White House, and it has been hard to imagine him and McConnell collaborating again.

Still, McConnell has hardly shrunk into the background. He headed up recent efforts to continue U.S. support for Ukraine in its war with Russia, signing off on an unsuccessful compromise to link it to border security.

And just this week he attended a White House meeting with fellow Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, who rebuffed efforts by McConnell, President Joe Biden and other Democratic leaders to persuade him to put more aid to Ukraine to a House vote.

On the political front, Kentucky Republicans will have no shortage of contenders whenever a Senate seat opens up. Part of McConnell’s legacy is that of a key strategist behind the party’s rise from backbencher status to outright dominance in the state.

Republicans now hold five of the state's six U.S. House seats, and perhaps some could seize the rare opening to try to move to the Senate.

The last person to win a major statewide election, however, was a Democrat. Gov. Andy Beshear, who has vowed to serve out his entire second term, proved his popularity with the state's voters last year with a resounding reelection win in a campaign other Democrats have studied for clues on how to connect with red state voters.

National Democrats contending with a closely divided Senate might be tempted to try to convince Beshear to repeat the feat with a bid for a seat they might not otherwise have a shot at.

The man Beshear defeated last year, former state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, is another possibility. He's one of many McConnell proteges who might seek the job.

At the Kentucky statehouse, Republican legislators reflected on McConnell’s announcement and his storied Senate career. He ousted a Democratic incumbent in 1984, when Ronald Reagan won reelection to the White House.

“I don’t guess I’m shocked but a little melancholy about it, actually,” Republican House Speaker David Osborne said. “He’s an institution. So I’m disappointed. It’s a bad thing for Kentucky.”

A group of GOP Kentucky lawmakers attended a recent political fundraiser for McConnell, which Stivers took as a sign that he might seek another term. McConnell has long been a prolific fundraiser, both for himself and for other Senate Republicans.

This week, a day after McConnell's announcement, a Kentucky legislative committee advanced a bill on Thursday to strip the governor’s authority to appoint a new U.S. senator if a vacancy occurs. The bill, introduced last week, calls for a special election to fill a vacancy. Its GOP sponsor says it has nothing to do with McConnell. Current law specifies the governor must fill a Senate vacancy by choosing from a three-name list, provided by leaders from the same party as the senator who formerly held the seat.

While the speculation percolates, GOP lawmakers in Kentucky say it would be wrong to write off McConnell once he's out of leadership.

“I will make this prediction," said Thayer, the state Senate's majority floor leader. "Even though this part of Mitch McConnell’s political career will be over in November, that of being the Republican leader, I don’t think the last chapter in Mitch McConnell’s political life has yet to be written. More to come, I predict.”

Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press